George Rutledge Cowan was born on September 22, 1837, in Lebanon, Russell County, and was the son of Mary Gilmore Cowan and George Cowan, a prosperous farmer who served several terms in the House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia. Little is known of Cowan’s early life. He probably attended local schools.
On May 2, 1861, Cowan enlisted as ain the New Garden Fearnots, later organized as Company I of the 37th Regiment Virginia Infantry. Four of his brothers also served in the unit, one as captain. In June the regiment departed for northwestern Virginia to join Brigadier General ‘s command. While skirmishing at Laurel Hill, Cowan’s company learned of the defeat of Confederate forces at Rich Mountain and joined in the general retreat. By July 20 his unit had escaped to safety at Monterey. The regiment fought in ‘s failed Cheat Mountain campaign in September. The 37th Regiment was then attached to ‘s command, and late in March 1862 Cowan was wounded in the hip in the fighting at . During the he fought at , where one of his brothers was mortally wounded. After receiving a severe wound at Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862, Cowan was placed on furlough and returned home.
On January 1, 1863, Cowan won election as clerk of Russell County and served in that capacity until 1869. In his application for a special presidential pardon in August 1865, he cited both his work as county clerk and a very brief stint as tax assessor but made no mention of his service in the Confederate army. Cowan married Sarah E. Fuller on June 12, 1866. They had seven daughters and three sons before her death from consumption (probably tuberculosis) on August 16, 1888.
In a referendum held on October 22, 1867, Russell County by a large majority and Buchanan County by a narrow margin approved holding a convention to draft a new state constitution. Cowan placed second in a field of five candidates in Russell County, and in Buchanan County he easily led a three-candidate field to win an overall majority and the convention seat representing the two counties. Appointed to the Committee on Taxation and Finance and to the Committee on Prisons and the Prevention and Punishment of Crime, he did not speak formally on the floor of the convention that met in Richmond from December 3, 1867 to April 17, 1868.
Characterized by the commander of Military District Number One as an “unreconstructed” “Original Secessionist,” Cowan aligned consistently with Conservatives on key roll-call votes. He did not supportfor convention president and voted with a minority who sought an investigation of his conduct in that office. Cowan opposed racial integration of public schools and voted against efforts to disfranchise white Virginians who had supported secession or the Confederacy and also against the so-called test oath that would have prevented all such men from holding office. He did not vote on the adoption of the new constitution but with twenty-eight other Conservatives signed a public address protesting most of its provisions.
During and after the Civil War, Cowan acquired several tracts of land, and when he returned home from the convention he resumed buying and selling various properties. In 1888 he paid taxes on 968 acres that he owned outright, and by 1891 he had added another 105 acres to his holdings. Cowan was still residing in Russell County in July 1893, but by the next year he had sold all but 143 acres and moved west. In April 1894 he was living in Orlando, Logan County, Oklahoma Territory, where he resumed farming. Cowan remained in that county until at least August 24, 1898, and probably until August 1903, when he traveled to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to arrange for the burial of his youngest daughter. By 1904 Cowan had moved to Colorado Springs. He lived with another daughter, a schoolteacher, before moving into his own residence. Cowan died of recurrent skin cancer on October 14, 1904. He was buried beside his youngest daughter in Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs.